By Which Alone We Live

Psalm 45.1

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Poetry is not my forte.

That is, I can neither write poetry nor do I often understand it.

Give me a big work of theology, or nonfiction, or fiction and I will plow through the words.

But poetry? No thank you.

Poetry, unlike just about all other writing, is not meant to be consumed quickly.

Poetry takes time.

And so I force myself to read poems out loud and with a slow pace, otherwise I run the risk of leaving the poem no wiser than I was at the beginning.

Lots of scripture is poetic, or at least it’s meant to be received poetically. We are not called to be masters of the text but instead we are called to be servants of the Word. 

And that takes time.

Frankly, it’s why we keep returning to the same scriptures year after year because those words reveal to us something about the Word. And when we come closer to the Word we discover more about who we are and whose we are. 

A few years ago, while forcing myself through a collection of poems, one jumped out at me. It was so powerful and so moving that I read it over and over not because of a lack of comprehension, but because it was so true

That poem is below and I encourage you to take the time to read it slowly, read it out loud if you have to, until you can rest in the knowledge that grace really is the fund by which alone we live.

Original Sin by Wendell Berry

Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride

of thinking we invented sin ourselves

by our originality, that famous modern power.

In fact, we have it from the beginning

of the world by the errors of being born,

being young, being old, causing pain

to ourselves, to others, to the world, to God

by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,

by accident. Something is bad the matter 

here, informing us of itself, handing down

its old instruction. We know it

when we see it, don’t we? Innocence

would never recognize it. We need it

too, for without it we would not know 

forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,

that fund of grace by which alone we live. 

Wendell Berry

What Is Love, If Not Jesus Persevering?

“I can’t stand people who say, ‘Well, when it’s all said and done, what’s really important is that we love one another.’ No! You’ve gotta love one another rightly. And how do we do that? Well, in the Gospel of John Jesus declares, ‘I call you my friends and now you can love one another.’ Remember: to be a friend of Jesus didn’t turn out very well for most of the disciples. The love that moves the sun and the stars (Dante) is that love that sustains the disciples through the challenge of dying – that is the love that is rightly seen at the center of the Christian life. Love is rightly understood to be the very substance of relation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” – Stanley Hauerwas

If you check out any church website, or examine any sign on a church property, you are pretty much guaranteed to see something about love. “We love everyone at this church!” “All are welcome here!” “We have open hearts, open minds, open doors!”

Which is all good and fine, but it’s not true. At least, not really. 

The church is in the business of welcoming all people but then we usually tell them, explicitly or implicitly, that they need to start acting like us. That is: we are fine with loving people until they fit the version of themselves that we want them to be.

Love, then, is radically coercive and predicated on how we view one another rather than how God views us.

Or, in some churches, our understanding of what it means to love remains forever in the realm of sentimentality and we do the bare minimum to maintain relationships that never extend to anything behind polite hellos. 

Stanley Hauerwas, on the other hand, rightly observes that we know what love looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love, then, isn’t whatever we view on the Hallmark channel or celebrate around on Valentine’s day. Love isn’t a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates. 

Love is cruciform.

Love is death and resurrection.

Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life to make something of our nothing. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing theological principles than mere words alone, here are some tunes to get us thinking of what it means to love rightly.

Natalie Bergman will be releasing her first solo record “Mercy” on May 7th. The album is a beautiful amalgamation of psychedelia and gospel and it follows her search for hope and salvation amidst the loss of both of her parents in a car accident. The song “Home At Last” is a profound reflection on love and loss with some wicked harmonies.

J.E. Sunde is a singer/songwriter who hails from Minneapolis. “Sunset Strip” has a super-catchy melody with harmonies that are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Oddly, it feels upbeat but it delivers a gut punch of repentance: “Yes I did wrong but you know I confessed it / I wrote this song just to prove that I meant it / But now you’re gone and I feel empty / I feel empty I feel empty.”

Leon Bridges has one of those voices that feels out of time, in a good way. “Like A Ship” is a cover of T.L. Bennet gospel tune from 1971 and it sees Bridges lifting up his silky smooth voice with a groovy baseline on top of some tight drums. A gospel choir belts out the harmonic anthem and the song, appropriately, ends with an organ solo that would delight any Sunday morning church crowd. 

The Way Things Can Be

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that “we are who we are,” and that “things are doomed to stay the same,” and that “it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes” – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

And so much of this is because we have failed to open our eyes to all of the wild possibilities that life after Easter makes possible. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin and death – they no longer have control over us. And yet, we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we spend more money on the military than we do on social uplift. It’s why we ask to tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even when they don’t own any boots. It’s why we keep viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace. 

But here’s the good news, the really truly good news of life after easter: If God can raise a crucified and dead Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus is alive! 

Because of Easter, we don’t believe in rejection – we believe in resurrection. We aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done. We can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are – God has sent us free for the way things can be. 

Here are some tunes that can help us wrestle with the already but not yet of what it means to be a Christian in the world today:

Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” tells the epic narrative of slavery, sin, and The South coupled with guitar, mandolin, and haunting harmonies. The duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina use the metaphor of a wildfire to convey how hatred has always rested at the heart of “the Land of the Free” and spreads, frighteningly, even now. 

Kevin Morby released “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016 as a protest song that feels/sounds more like a hymn than it does an anthem of hoped-for societal change. All of the proceeds from the song have gone to Everytown For Gun Safety (a nonprofit aimed at gun violence prevention) and Morby still plays the song at every live performance in order to help “spread the word.” The percussion propels the song forward, the acoustic guitar is wonderfully melodic, but its Morby’s voice and lyrics that remain long after the song ends. 

Do yourself a favor: Carve our 15 minutes to sit down and listen through the entirety of Ross Gay’s incredible poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” set to the flowing synths of Bon Iver. The poem proclaims a degree of wonder for that which has been given in addition to that which has been taken away (Job 1.21). And, because I don’t know how else to convey it, the whole thing feels alive. Enjoy. 

Proof, Poop, & Pastoral Care

Is it important for Christians to have proof of God’s existence? What happens when we read verses out of context from the Bible? What, exactly, is pastoral care? 

I was recently invited to participate in a recording for the 1000 Question Christian podcast in which we wrestled with answering the questions above. The whole conceit of the podcast is putting two clergy together to answer questions that people might be too afraid to ask their actual pastors. And, in a twist of fate (or the providence of God!), I was paired up with Seungsoo “RJ” Jun who, until recently, served the church that I will begin serving in July! If you would like to listen to the podcast you can check it out here: Proof, Poop, & Pastoral Care

A Dangerous Time For Christians

“I have always thought that Lent is a dangerous time for Christians. This time in the church year, I fear, tempts us to play at being Christian. We are to discipline our lives during Lent in order to discover and repent of those sins that prevent us from the wholehearted worship of God. That is a perfectly appropriate ambition, but we are not very good at it. We are not very good at it because, in general, we are not very impressive sinners. Just as most of us are mediocre Christians, so we are mediocre sinners. As a result, Lent becomes a time we get to play at being sinners while continuing to entertain the presumption that we are not all that bad… I am not suggesting that Lenten disciplines do not have a place. Giving up something we will miss may help us discover forms of self-centeredness that make us less than Christ has made possible. But, hopefully, we will find ways to avoid playing at being sinful. Lent is not a time to play at anything but rather a time to confess that we would have shouted ‘Crucify him!’” – Stanley Hauerwas

If Hauerwas is right, and Lent is a dangerous time for Christians, we should certainly be careful about what we say and do during this season. I’m treating this Lent as an opportunity to come to grips with the condition of my/our condition. That is, I’m trying to place myself squarely in the category of sinner rather than in the category of self-righteous.

Which is no easy thing.

I remember one Good Friday when I stood before the gathered congregation and encouraged everyone to stand to sing the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.” It’s a strange hymn in a minor key and we all struggled through it, but when the service was over there was a woman waiting for me in the narthex who declared, “If we ever sing that song again, I am never coming back to the church.”

I inquired as to what exactly it was about the sound that upset her so much and she said, “I never would’ve crucified Jesus! And I’m offended that I had to sing those words.”

Verse 2: Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? / Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! / ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; / I crucified thee.

There is a desire within many of us to think that, had we been there, we would’ve been good little disciples and we would’ve stayed with Jesus until the very end. Remember, however, that even the first disciples called by Jesus, the ones who witnessed his healings, ate his miraculous meals, listened to his powerful proclamations, even they abandoned him in the end.

Do you see? The truth is that we can try to convince ourselves of our self-righteousness, but God will not allow us to get away with such arrogance.

That’s why we sing songs like “Ah, Holy Jesus” every year to remember that we, just like everyone else, would’ve shouted crucify.

Lent, to use Hauerwas’ words, isn’t a time to play – it’s a time to be honest about who we are.

But hear the Good News: it’s precisely in knowing who we are that the Lord chooses to forgive us from the cross.

We Are What We Pretend To Be

What does it take, what does it mean, to be a Christian?

This is a worthy question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, particularly during the time we call Lent. Lent, after all, is a season of repentance, or turning back to the Lord who came to dwell among us. Lent is that wondrous opportunity to reflect on what it is we are doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the one who breathed life into us.

And yet, most of us believe, even though we confess ourselves to be sinners, that we are actually good enough. We know we are not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). It is therefore not at all clear to us that we are sinful creatures in need of a Savior who can make something of our nothing.

As Christians, thankfully, we believe that we must be taught what it means to be sinners. That training comes by being confronted by Jesus Christ who, as Karl Barth puts it: “has accused us by turning and taking to Himself the accusation which is laid properly against us, against all people. He pronounced sentence on us by taking our place, by unreservedly allowing that God is in the right against Himself – Himself the bearer of our guilt. This is the humility of the act of God which has taken our place for us in Jesus Christ.”

Just as we must be taught what it means to be sinners, we must be taught what it means to be disciples – and this is a teaching that takes a lifetime.

So we need not worry about whether or not we are really Christians. During Lent (or any other liturgical time) we may think we are only pretending to be Christian, going through the motions of faith. 

But, by God’s grace, God makes us what we pretend to be.

Here are some tunes to get in a Lenten mood…

Kevin Morby’s “Wander” has been on repeat in my house over the last few months if only because my four year old loves to pound his chest when the kick-drum shakes our bookshelves as it mirrors a heart beat midway through the song. The lyrics, though, feel perfectly Lenten as it conveys a journey into the stormy weather of the wilderness. 

The Strokes’ “Under Control” is one of my all time favorite songs and Rostam’s cover pays homage to the teen angst of the original while putting it inside of a more reflective and ethereal feel. As one of the founding members of Vampire Weekend, Rostam excels in creating atmospheric melodies and what he does with “Under Control” keeps the song stuck in my head for hours. Lent, to me, is a season where we wrestle back and forth between being in, and out of, control which is what this song is all about.

Wilco’s “On and on and On” is remarkably apt this lenten season as it feels like we never really left Lent last year because of the pandemic. Jeff Tweedy has this uncanny ability to craft songs that speak these tremendous truths, and the lyrics in this song are both hopeful and frightening (in the best way) at the same time: “On and on and on we’ll be together, yeah / please don’t cry, we’re designed to die.” 

The Strange American Dream

“I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.” – Dr. Jane Williams 

In this time after Epiphany but before Lent, the lectionary texts regale us with stories of those who are called by God. We hear about Samuel sleeping in the temple, some fishermen down by the sea, and even Jonah (reluctantly) warning the Ninevites about the wrath to come. And, sadly, there is a righteous temptation to so read ourselves into those stories that we walk away from worship thinking more about what we need to do for God and less about what God has already done for us.

Trusting in God’s ability to do more than we ever could really is is at the heart of the Christian witness.

As someone who consumes more music than I’m proud to admit, here are some tunes that, to me, reflect God’s primary agency in the life of faith. 

The Decalogue is a 2017 soundtrack album composed by Sufjan Stevens (and performed by Timo Andres) to a ballet of the same name. The ten tracks correspond with the Ten Commandments handed down at Sinai and each of them offer a little world worth resting in. “V” begins with rising arpeggios that, tonally, stay with the listener long after the song ends. The commands in scripture can easily fall into the category of “what we do for God” but this offering from Sufjan forces us to reflect on the One who gives these commandments to us in the first place.

I was recently introduced to the music of Andy Shauf and I keep getting lost in the brief narratives of his songs. In “Neon Skyline” the protagonist invites a friend to a bar of the same name to join him as he “washes his sins away.” The rest of the lyrics paint the scene of the evening in which there’s nothing better than wasting a bit of time. I can’t help but think about God “wasting” time with us whether it’s continually making something of our nothing, or actually being the One who washes our countless sins away. 

My final offering this week is, perhaps, a little too on the nose, but I couldn’t help myself. Rayland Baxter’s “Strange American Dream” feels incredibly prescient in our particular moment and I will let the song speak for itself, particularly the chorus: “Now the world world is wired up / On the red, white, and the green / And all the boys and girls are growin’ up / In a strange American dream.”

What makes the American dream so strange, at least to Christians, is that we are forever being told to make something of ourselves when, in fact, God is the one who makes something of all of our nothings.

Breaking The Law To Hear The Gospel

In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith.

And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas week almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all. 

Below you can find three of the most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:

“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.

“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is to stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and to be thankful.

“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord. To you!”

Merry (almost) Christmas.

The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

The Justice Department executed Brandon Bernard by lethal injection on Thursday for his part in a 1999 double murder-robbery when he was 18 years old.

Bernard was the ninth man killed by the federal government since July and he spent more than half of his life waiting on death row.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though it has only recently come back into practice by the Federal Government. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence others away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,620 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur, it is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the long term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistics and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with and rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when Brandon Bernard was killed yesterday, it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. 

Lord, Come With Fire!

The crew from Crackers & Grape Juice has started putting together a bi-monthly newsletter with exclusive essays/sermons/reflections from some of our favorite theologians. My humble contribution is a playlist. You can sign up for the newsletter here: CGJ+ and you can check out my playlist for the beginning of Advent below:

Punch Brothers – O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Sufjan Stevens – Justice Delivers Its Death

The Shins – We Will Become Silhouettes (cover)

Here, in the midst of a world drowning in bad news, it’s not hard to imagine raising our clenched fists to the sky and shouting, “God! Where the hell are you?” 

That is an Advent question – perhaps the Advent question.

Therefore, an authentically hopeful Advent spirit is not looking away from the darkness and filling our lives with fluff in order to deny the truth. Instead, we pray for the Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the conviction to look straight into the muck and the mire of this life.

For, in the end, that’s exactly where God chose, and still chooses, to show up for us…

Chris Thile, front man for the Punch Brothers and recent host of “Live From Here,” is a mandolin-picking genius. His tunes have been categorized in genres from acoustic folk to progressive bluegrass to modern classical. He, along with the Punch Brothers, put forth a version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that does the delicate balance of lifting the original melody and lyrics with a new sensitivity – with each passing verse more instruments and harmonies are added until its righteous conclusion.

Any fan of CGJ knows that I am a big fan of Sufjan Stevens – so much so that the rest of the crew often ridicules me for it. Hopefully, the more of his music I put on these playlists, the more they will accept his genius. Stevens has released a ton of Christmas/Advent covers over the years, but his original song Justice Delivers Its Death haunts me. The declaration of “Lord, come with fire!” comes straight from the prophet Isaiah and it offers a melodic corrective to the saccharine quality of too many Advent/Christmas songs. 

Whether we like to admit it or not, Advent is an inherently apocalyptic season in the liturgical calendar – it places us squarely between the already and not yet, the once and future King, the arrival and the return of Jesus Christ. And yet, the apocalyptic tension of Advent is not necessarily as grim and frightening as it is made out to be (in certain churches). The Shins cover of the Postal Service’s We Will Become Silhouettes embodies a hopeful character while the lyrics are strikingly scary. To me, it captures the essence of a hopeful and realistic Advent of looking straight into the darkness knowing that the dawn is coming.